Tuesday, October 16, 2018

On sleeping for a year and waking up in a storm

We're probably meant to feel horrified. A girl, who seemingly has everything, decides to escape from the world by sleeping for a year.

But I have to admit that I was strangely drawn to the main character's quest in Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It's the biting language of the book, the dark humor, the thoroughly unlikeable, and yet, somehow sympathetic narrator, and the blurb on the flap that promises one of "the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature." 

I read the book in one day, curled on my own couch, laughing at times at the absurdity of the situation (can you really go to sleep for a year?) and wondering too, how to sign myself up, because really, who doesn't want to occasionally throw on Netflix and binge-watch a season of something while drifting in and out of reality? 

In the case of our narrator it's not Netflix, but a trusty VCR and an unending supply of movies to binge-watch. The year is 2000. She's just out of college, living in New York City, working at a pretentious job, basically playing the role of a bored snotty beautiful receptionist at a surreally weird art gallery. Her on again/off again boyfriend is an asshole but she keeps going back for more. Her best friend is an easy person to push around, over-the-top desperate and pathetic, but probably the only person in our narrator's life who genuinely cares about her since both of her parents died.

Oh, and there's that awful psychiatrist, eager to prescribe any and all medications to ensure this girl gets her sleep. 

I won't tell you the rest, but please, someone else read this so we can talk about it!

Warning about the next book:

There's a dog in it, that dies. I knew this going in, which is why the book sat on my bedside table for two years. I have a thing about dogs in books, specifically, dogs dying. The book in question won the National Book Award though, and I typically like to read those. The author Jesmyn Ward won a second National Book Award last year, so I couldn't deny the pull of the book any longer. 

An hour after closing Moshfegh's book, I jumped into Ward's. It's called Salvage the Bones, and oh my God. The writing. This is, I don't know what to call it exactly, Faulknerian? Luscious metaphorical language and description, a story and characters that grab you on the first page. 

It's twelve days before Hurricane Katrina hits and our main character is an African American girl, fifteen, newly pregnant, poor, living in the deep backwoods of Mississippi with her alcoholic father, her brothers, one of whom raises pitbulls to fight. The dog, Jesus God the beautiful dog, and these kids- the intense loyalty they have for each other, their determination to grow up, to survive, and all the while, 

there's this storm coming. 

After I read the book, practically shaking at the end when I knew what was going to happen but praying I was wrong, when I closed the book, wondering how I could feel not despair but somehow hope, and how in the world did Jesmyn Ward DO THIS? I looked up everything I could about her, 

listened to an interview she did after she won her second National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I can assure you will not sit unread for long on my bedside table. She's made me question everything I thought I knew about our country, taking me by the hand gently and then slapping me upside the head,

waking me up from my privileged binge-watching reality into a world I didn't know existed but know now has always been here.

READ. IT.



Sunday, October 7, 2018

The girl annoyed the heck out of me

Sometimes I fell into these battles with a student.

The boy who always skipped class. The girl who cheated on tests. The boy who cast a spell on my unborn child. We'd butt heads, with me using whatever meager authority I had as a teacher to win-- writing detentions, scolding, pestering. I am not proud to say that sometimes when a kid got on my last nerve, I humiliated him.

Most of these battles ebbed and flowed, lasting a few weeks, maybe a month, but not with this girl. She came late to class nearly every day, always with a note from the attendance principal.

The man was smart, a rule stickler (a good trait for an attendance principal) but there were warning signs. Once he physically assaulted a kid in the hallway for wearing a baseball hat.

But nothing came of it. Because, I don't know why. It was the 1990's.

He had a group of girls working for him, including my student. She sauntered around the school smiling with her hall pass. She was failing my class. No surprise, since she missed so much of it. One day, when she traipsed in at the end of the period, I lost it and snatched the pass out of her hand. I made a big dramatic show of stomping over to my desk and grabbing an envelope. I stuffed the pass inside and said, Here's where I'm keeping these, so when you fail, we'll all know why.

The envelope was bulging when the story broke that the assistant principal had been sexually abusing girls at the school. Including my student. He preyed on troubled girls. He made them feel special. In return, he let them help in the office. Wrote them passes to get them out of class.

One afternoon the girl and her mother came to my classroom. The girl's head was bowed when her mom said, My daughter told me you saved all of his hall passes... is that true?

She wasn't the only one who wanted to know. The school security guard, a friend of the attendance principal, (who was on leave pending an investigation) told me to give him the hall passes. I lied and said that stuff was at home. Then I rushed down to the office and made copies of everything. Later, two people from the district attorney's office pulled me out of class and took my deposition in the hallway. Turns out the hall passes and my attendance book were corroborating evidence.

At this point it was a media circus at our school. Reporters were camped out in front of the building, interviewing students. Some kids, as a joke, started a campaign to free the principal. They printed up T-shirts. What the man did to the girls became a subplot. A joke. Hardly anyone defended them. They were troubled girls. Girls with failing grades who came late to class.

At the end of the school year, I quit in exhaustion and disgust. Took a job at a private school. Moved out of state a year later. I shared my new address with the district attorney's office in case they needed me for a trial. No one ever contacted me.

The guy got away with it. The girls... well, what do you think?

But this was back in the 90's. I'm sure nothing like this would happen today.